Handling the Media

Illman, J. (2016) Handling the Media: Communications and Presentation Skills for Healthcare Professionals

This book is primarily for healthcare professionals who may not know how to communicate with the media or who may be reluctant to do so. Written by an experienced medical writer, the book shows how the interests of journalists differ from those of healthcare professionals, while emphasising that the relationship between these two groups need not be an antagonistic one.

Because journalists will be interested in stories which are novel, universally appealing and controversial, the author argues that healthcare workers should engage with the media in order to avoid misrepresentation. But to engage successfully, communication skills need to be honed.

John Illman consequently offers concrete advice on how to respond to requests for a media interview and how to prepare for the interview once accepted. Particularly insightful is his discussion of “bridging” techniques, which are used to acknowledge and to respond constructively to difficult questions. This is an important skill to master where the agendas of the interviewer and the interviewee differ.

Useful guidance is also given on how to prepare and deliver presentations and how to use social media to communicate effectively. The advice on writing for the press and on pitching an outline of an article to an editor is similarly good and will appeal to readers who want to make medical journalism their career.

This is an excellent book. There is some theory in relation to journalistic balance, bias and law, but the focus is practical. It is well written and will certainly encourage the reader to believe that they can use the media to communicate with a non‐specialist public.

Review originally published in Reviews Significance , 14:2 45 doi: 10.1111/j.1740-9713.2017.01024.x

Supported Decision Making at KESS

Our four peer researchers gave a wonderful presentation of findings so far for the supported decision making research project at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar (KESS), Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast on the 7th February 2018.

A policy briefing, the slides and a video of their talk is now available!

Supported Decision Making

Our research team will be giving a presentation on Supported decision making – experiences, approaches and preferences at the Knowledge Exchange Seminar, Long Gallery, Parliament Buildings, Stormont on the 7th February 2018.

So why not take a look at the abstract and register to attend if you are around?


Making decisions about your own life is a key aspect of independence, freedom and human rights. Mental health law has previously allowed compulsory intervention even when a person has the decision making ability to decline intervention. This discriminates against those with mental health problems and intellectual disabilities. In May 2016 the Mental Capacity Act (Northern Ireland) became statutory law, although may not be implemented until 2020. In contrast to other countries this law will replace rather than be in parallel to a mental health law. This is a unique and progressive development which seeks to address the discrimination of separate mental health law. A core principle of the new Act is that people are “not to be treated as unable to make a decision…unless all practicable help and support to enable the person to make a decision about the matter have been given without success” (Article 1(4)).

There are people who, without support, would be assessed as incapable of making certain decisions but with the appropriate support are capable of making those decisions, and so to not provide that support infringes their rights, undermines their autonomy and reinforces their exclusion from society. There is very limited research evidence available about people’s experience of the range of approaches provided to support decision-making; what approaches work for whom; and what people’s preferences are for support. This evidence is urgently needed to inform the Code of Practice for the new Act and the wider implementation process.

This presentation provides a summary of findings from a research project which explored how people have, or have not been, supported to make their own decisions. It was funded by Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) and used a coproduction approach between disabled people, Praxis, Mencap and Queen’s. The project involved peer researchers interviewing 20 people with mental health problems and 20 people with intellectual disabilities, to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences of supported decision-making and their preferences and ideas for how decision-making should be supported in the new legal framework.

Research into Practice

The Social Research Association (SRA) has organised a panel discussion in Belfast on 14th March 2018.

This free SRA evening event in Northern Ireland is a panel discussion of how research gets into practice – or doesn’t. What makes this possible, in Northern Ireland and further afield?  What are the barriers, and what are the enablers? Does research get into practice more easily in some sectors or disciplines? If so, what can this teach others, and how?

If this appeals, why not complete the registration form here?

Limits of Social Science

Hammersley, M. (2014) The limits of social science. Causal explanation and value relevance

In this short book, Hammersley argues for a social science which eschews grand theorising in favour of the explanation of social phenomena. Drawing inspiration from Max Weber and referring to a range of social theorists and philosophers, Hammersley encourages social scientists to re-think what they are actually doing as researchers in order to create a social science which generates knowledge which is both reliable and valid. Some readers might, of course, reply that there are no problems with social research as an intellectual endeavour, but Hammersley’s purpose seems to be to awake us from our slumbers. This is a task in which he partially succeeds. Hammersley is not, for example, opposed to causal analysis in the social sciences, but argues that we should raise our game by adopting ‘within-case and cross-case analysis’. He also prioritises explanation over theorising with the proviso that ‘all purpose’ explanations are not possible because explanations are ‘always answers to particular questions’. He also argues that value conclusions cannot be derived from evidence, and offers convincing arguments why this might be the case. The consequence of Hammersley’s position is that social research should be limited to making ‘factual’ statements rather than ‘value’ claims. Although much of the book is theoretical, the author grounds his views by referring to social mobility research and to work on the English riots of 2011.

What I most enjoyed about this book is that Hammersley encourages the reader to think hard about social research practice. He is, for example, unconvinced by the view that there is a direct relationship between research and policy outcomes. On the contrary, he says that the relationship is ‘highly mediated and contingent’. Moreover, he recognises that different social science disciplines employ different methods of explanation. One has only to think of the very different approaches of the experimental psychologist and of the historian to appreciate that he has a point. But such explanatory pluralism in the social sciences has a disturbing consequence. If there is no agreed threshold which all social scientists have to meet in order to generate valid and reliable knowledge, then how do these disciplines differ from vocations like investigative or data journalism? In addition, Hammersley draws a sharp distinction between ‘facts’ which are of interest to the social scientist and ‘value claims’ which should be of interest to policymakers and think tanks. If true, it is very hard to see how social researchers can make the case for funding their work in a cultural environment which does not recognise that knowledge has value in itself. Hammersley recognises this point but does not offer any solutions.

This book is not a paean to social science as it is currently practised and will be, to use Hammersley’s own word, a ‘deflationary’ read for some. If, however, you want to read something which may question your preconceptions, this book is a good place to begin.

Review originally published in Research Matters, December 2015

Is Freelance Journalism Obsolete?

Cohen, N.S. (2016) Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age.

At a time when, to quote Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, ‘literally tens of thousands of journalists are losing their jobs’ and freelancing is becoming a permanent way of working for many creative workers, the publication of Writers’ Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age could not be timelier.

Writers’ Rights is a ‘study of the working conditions of freelance journalists’ in English-speaking Canada, the USA and the UK, an account of the context in which freelance journalists work and an assessment of the organisational strategies which they have used to deal with their economic circumstances and powerlessness vis-à-vis publishers (6). Under the term ‘freelance journalist’, Cohen – a former one herself – includes reporters as well as producers of non-fiction of all types, including features and corporate material. The study is based on the author’s own online survey of 206 Canadian freelance journalists in 2010, semi-structured interviews with staff and organisers within journalistic organisations and an interdisciplinary literature review (19-20).

Cohen begins by describing the working conditions of freelance journalists, which have deteriorated markedly with the arrival of digital journalism. Although one could argue that journalists are now living in a ‘golden age’ because of the explosion of online publications, Cohen provides a convincing exposé of worsening working conditions, including low or non-existent fees relative to colleagues on permanent contracts, inconsistent payment schedules, exclusion from social benefits due to the self-employed status of the freelance worker and the aggressive pursuit of copyright by publishers that leads to writers surrendering their  ‘moral right’ to be recognised as the author of a work via a byline.

In short, it is becoming very difficult to earn a living as a freelance journalist. Indeed, other sources would seem to corroborate Cohen’s assessment.  As a recent survey for the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) shows, the mean salary of freelance journalists in the UK is £19,499 per annum (5), with 44 per cent reporting that they earn less than £15,000 per year (6).

But why should the comparative immiseration of freelance journalists matter? For Cohen, it matters because the way in which freelance journalists are paid influences the types of journalism that are produced. Where freelance journalists are paid by the word, per feature or work on a pro bono basis in order to establish their brand, investigative journalism, freelance war reporting or in-depth feature writing become prohibitively expensive. A recent survey by Project Word of freelance investigative reporters hammers the point home by reporting that 55 per cent of survey respondents ‘failed to recoup their expenditures from story revenue, grants, or donations’ (5). Cohen is therefore correct to argue that ‘journalism is a form of communication essential for meaningful participation in democratic life’ (7), and that its viability as a practice is being seriously compromised by the ways in which journalists are remunerated for their work.

Cohen is also persuasive when describing how falling payments for freelance work can lead to the fusion of work and leisure time as writers strive to maximise every hour of the day to create value (128). The representation of the journalist as a worker who is always tuned in to the possibility of a saleable story may be an ideal type – if of the negative variety. By contrast, the NCTJ survey shows that 43 per cent of respondents were working part time and 87 per cent thought that their hours were reasonable (5). The NCTJ survey respondents also didn’t tend to view their freelance status as an unwanted interlude between one permanent contract and another, with 82 per cent reporting that they were not seeking to leave freelance journalism (6). However, apparently contradictory survey results from other sources do not necessarily invalidate Cohen’s assessment of the economic plight of freelance journalists. As she herself acknowledges, freelance journalists can be characterised by variation in terms of their earnings, working experiences and levels of job satisfaction (15).

Cohen’s account of what it is like to be a freelance journalist is understandably influenced by the concepts she uses, which are drawn from Marxist political economy. Although she recognises that many freelance journalists conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs, she argues that they do not, in most cases, accumulate capital or own the means of production which are vital ‘in order to bring products to market’ (26). For Cohen, journalists occupy a contradictory class location between the working class and the petty bourgeoisie at the economic level and between the working class and the bourgeoisie at the intellectual level (35). In other words, many freelance journalists may endure penury, but identify with the objectives of the publisher.

Rather unsurprisingly, therefore, the book concludes by making the argument that freelance journalists can improve their economic situation by mass unionisation. In order to buttress her argument, Cohen refers to the Canadian experience, which shows that writers’ organisations can make tangible gains for their members. She therefore references a number of organisations including a literary agency (the Canadian Writers Group), a professional association (the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and a union (the Canadian Media Guild) that have indeed secured improvements for their members. The collective agreements that the Canadian Media Guild have secured with a range of employers is one noteworthy example as is their affiliation with the 700,000 member strong Communication Workers of America.

However, what is clear is that attempts by freelance journalists to organise collectively have been hampered by the sheer number of writers’ organisations. Cohen recognises this by identifying the different attitudes that freelance journalists have towards collective organisation. Should a writers’ organisation be a professional association offering services to its members like a mutual society? Or should it be a literary agency representing the most prominent writers? Or should the organisation be a union and engage in collective bargaining on behalf of a mass membership base? Cohen plumps for the latter option (230-31). Although she is correct to suggest that creating a large union might be possible, I’m less convinced that an organisation of this type would survive in the medium to long term for the reasons Cohen herself recognises: freelance journalists are a diverse group with differing aspirations and ideological positions that are not necessarily compatible. How, for example, could a union hold together a membership that includes journalists who identify as small business people and writers who think of themselves as creative workers with an affiliation to the labour movement? Yes, one could argue that the entrepreneurial language that some journalists use masks the reality of the power imbalance between freelance journalists and publishers, but the fact that some journalists regard themselves as entrepreneurs must surely influence the types of collective organisations that they join.

Although I’m less optimistic than Cohen about the possibilities for organising such a diverse range of creative workers within a super union, Writers’ Rights is an invaluable addition to the literature on self-employment in general and freelance journalism in particular. Lucid, informative and passionate in arguing that freelance journalists can both defend their profession and produce journalism which enriches the democratic debate, this book will be read by practising journalists and students of the media alike.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books, March 2017

Being a Scholar in the Digital Era

Daniels, J., Thistlethwaite, P. (2016) Being a Scholar in the Digital Era: Transforming Scholarly Practice for the Public Good

The New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has described professors as ‘some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world’ who nonetheless, in the majority of cases, ‘just don’t matter in today’s great debates’. Provocative? Perhaps. Anti-intellectual? I don’t believe so; although one could perhaps more charitably argue that some academics may have inadvertently marginalised themselves, either because they don’t know enough about alternative modes of digital media – podcasts, blogs, twitter, altmetrics and so forth – or because they reject these modes of communication due to the association between digital technology and the marketisation of higher education.

For anyone who falls into either of these categories, a possible solution could be to read Jessie Daniels and Polly Thistlethwaites’s new book, which argues that scholars should move from scholarly practices associated with the pre-internet age to what they characterise as ‘digital scholarship’. What is meant by this is the subject of Being a Scholar in the Digital Era, but in broad terms the authors advocate open models of knowledge production and dissemination between academic and non-academic partners using the most appropriate digital technologies to maximise the impact and dissemination of research.

The book is most definitely not a technical treatise, which is a point in its favour if the intention is to persuade readers who may be intimidated by digital technology to avail of these tools in their own work. What they do instead is describe how digital technologies have been used in their own and others’ research, providing copious references for readers who want to know the technical detail.

But why should scholars become ‘digital scholars’? In short, what’s the problem? For Daniels and Thistlethwaite,  the current social science publishing landscape is populated by a small sub-set of publishers, university presses with highly specialist and therefore very small print runs and similarly specialist journals that are not accessible to anyone without access to a university library. Moreover, such a model of publication, with its infinitesimally small readership, is no longer sensible or rational in an age of ‘comparatively cheap, digital production and distribution of scholarly work’ (4).

In contrast, what the authors envisage is a situation where academics use digital platforms to co-produce research with community activists and communications professionals like journalists, film and documentary makers. One particularly noteworthy example that the authors refer to is Morris Justice: A Public Science Project in the Bronx, New York City, where researchers worked with residents to ‘create an active social media campaign in solidarity with court cases, legislation, and community organizing’ (23). What is particularly noteworthy is the way in which the Morris Justice project and an artists’ collective employed ‘spectacular messaging’ using a light projector to project survey results onto an apartment building (23).

One interesting consequence of Daniels and Thistlethwaites’ approach is that the ubiquity of digital publishing platforms like WordPress means that the traditional litmus test of research quality is no longer publication but the response produced by the readership (4). But will opening academic work to open peer review produce research that is rejected by more conventional academics? Daniels and Thistlethwaite don’t believe so, and they buttress their case with reference to a number of persuasive examples. They refer, for example, to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s book on Planned Obsolescence, which was published in draft form in open peer review before being conventionally published by an academic press (3).

In a similar vein, the authors contend that it is possible to conduct research which is academically respectable, has impact on policy and a wide readership. One only has to recall that the ‘Reading the Riots’ study of the summer riots in England in 2011  –  which Daniels and Thistlethwaite describe as ‘a hybrid form of social science research and investigative journalism’ (25)  –  had a combined radio and television audience of over 30 million people on ‘first phase launch day’ and that the study led to the publication of conventionally peer-reviewed publications too (Newburn 2015).

Unsurprisingly, the authors are particularly persuasive advocates of digital scholarship when they concentrate on learning gained from their own involvement with the recently concluded JustPublics@365: a project designed to bring academics, journalists and activists together to ‘address social justice issues through the use of social media’ (18). Beginning in January 2013 at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), the JustPublics@365 team members aimed to create information that had an impact outside of academia but which was robust from a scholarly perspective. Referring to their work across areas as diverse as ‘stop and frisk’ (31) the ‘public health alternatives to criminalising drug use’ (32) and disability studies (35), Daniels and Thistlethwaite describe how they used podcasts, project blogs and downloadable eBooks to ‘open up knowledge’ beyond the academy. One particularly noteworthy example is the Social Media Toolkit, which will be of use to academics who may, as the project website says, be ‘perplexed about how to share their research’ with people beyond the university.

The authors are not, however, mere utopians who regard digital technology as an unqualified blessing. On the contrary, they argue that tools like massive open online courses (MOOCs) have not delivered on their potential to open up learning to students without a history of prior educational attainment (39-48). Moreover, they are also fully aware of the link between impact measurements and the rise of ‘audit culture’ (115).

This is an excellent book that offers a concise and well-written description of how digital technology has been used to produce robust and genuinely impactful research. The book is short and, in spite of the fact that its focus is on digital scholarship in North American contexts, it will appeal to anyone who has been inspired by scholar-activists like W.E.B. Du Bois or C Wright Mills (24), but who would like to know how to become a scholar-activist in the digital era. The authors are also particularly good when charting the ‘convergence’ between disciplines and practices – academia, activism and journalism – that have been conventionally regarded as discrete. All things considered, this book is a fascinating and accessible read.

Review originally published in LSE Review of Books and LSE Impact of the Social Sciences, December 2016